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Reckoning With Racism in Our Own Congregations

Aligning With Our Better Angels

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Above image credit: Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City is grappling with how to support anti-racism efforts. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

I won the genetic lottery. I was born to a middle-class white family in the middle of the 20th Century in the middle of the United States (Woodstock, Illinois). And I turned out to be taller than middling (nearly 6 feet 4 inches). 

But as we Americans have been confronting our fiercely racist national history — anew — I find that I still have much to discern about how that history shaped my thinking. I’m grateful to be getting help with that from leaders and members of my own congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. I want to tell you about that to encourage other congregations of every faith tradition to join this anti-racism effort. 

But first, some background.

When I was in grade school, my hometown’s population (all white except for one Black family) was about 7,500. Today it’s triple that and is home to many more Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other people of color.

As an 11-year-old, I was fortunate to be pulled out of that small-town racist environment. Racist? Well, for starters, as I’ve described in my book, ”Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans”, my Cub Scout troop used to put on minstrel shows, sponsored by my Presbyterian church.

Minstrel show flier
When he was a child, Bill Tammeus’ Cub Scout troop put on minstrel shows, sponsored by the local Presbyterian church in Woodstock, Illinois. (Contributed)

My family and I moved to India for two years because my father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team.

After some months in a Himalayan boarding school attended mostly by children of American missionaries, I came to our family’s home on the campus of what then was called the Allahabad Agriculture Institute at the confluence of the Ganges and Jumna rivers. I then attended an Allahabad school in which I was the only American among Indians and Anglo-Indians. 

That gave me at least a taste of what it’s like not to be in the ethnic majority. 

After returning to Illinois and finishing high school, I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where I got some experience writing about such matters as school desegregation.

During three-plus years after graduation I was a reporter on the now-defunct Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union, covering many issues in the Black community there, from housing to employment to urban renewal to the “Model Cities” program established during the Johnson administration.

And after I came to The Kansas City Star as a reporter in 1970, I also covered many subjects related to racism, including redlining and racial population turnover in southeast Kansas City. Indeed, a colleague and I published a long investigative piece in 1975 proving that traditional mortgage lenders had redlined 50 square miles of the urban core.

All of which is to say that, at least on paper, it might have looked like I was reasonably well informed about why race relations have never been great in the U.S. and about how that might be improved.

But I was missing some of the broader history of how White supremacy has infected our nation since before its founding. I didn’t quite grasp that when people today say the American system isn’t working, they’re wrong. The system is working in exactly the systemically racist way it was designed to work. We need to remake that system in ways that finally take our founders’ hypocritical words about equality seriously.

My congregation isn’t new to confronting racial issues. Indeed, it was formed in 1865 when a small group of people left the now-defunct First Presbyterian Church because of its pro-slavery stance. Second Church identified as anti-slavery. It was a good start, perhaps, but church records show that 100 years later, in the 1960s, our leaders debated what to do if Black people showed up and wanted to join. Apparently they were frozen into indecision because no conclusion was recorded.

Second Church has remained predominantly white, though we have had — and still have — some people of color as members. But in these turbulent times after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, we’ve decided we need to figure out how to live more intentionally into an anti-racist future.

So we’ve created a group that has participated in biracially led anti-racism training and is discerning how to proceed not only in our neighborhood, city, country and world, but also within our own walls; as we also ask what internal policies and practices contribute to the relative racial isolation of our congregation.

We’re even looking at the reality that the property on which our church building has been located at 55th Street and Brookside Boulevard for more than 100 years once was controlled by Indigenous people whose lands were stolen from them by force or unfair, broken treaties. And we’re trying to figure out how we might become an ally to local American Indians, whose ancestors were crushed by European invaders who, starting at least in the 1400s, overran their tribal land.

We don’t yet know where this will lead. But we do know one thing. We will make mistakes, and get things wrong.

But it will be crucial to align ourselves with the forces of anti-racism and not with the forces of segregation or assimilation, as scholar Ibram X. Kendi describes those categories in his 2016 book, ”Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”. Segregationists (they still exist) want racial separation because they believe Blacks are inferior to whites. The assimilationists (also still around) think that if Blacks just try harder eventually they might become more like whites.

Kendi’s approach is not the only way to think about this, but it’s a place to start. And we won’t be able to move forward in a constructive, non-racist way without knowing the appalling American history he describes. 

In Article 1, Section 2 of our Constitution, our founders smashed each Black person in the country down to three-fifths of a white person. But they also offered a vision of an anti-racist nation, even if they didn’t believe a word of it. Now it’s up to us to make that vision a reality.

My congregation, committed to the idea that every person is a beloved child of God, is trying. I hope others will try, too. 

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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